Introduction | Hip Hop
Like so many of black America’s most enduring musical genres, hip hop was born out of invention. When, as the 1970s came to a close, a combination of disco and big record company involvement had diluted funk and soul to the extent that it had become boring to go out to a club on a Saturday night, something rumbled out of New York’s South Bronx that would change the music business for ever – hip hop.
Always more than simply a type of music, hip hop was a whole youth culture, with rap as one of its component pieces. Musically, hip hop took exactly what it wanted from what already existed – beats, breaks, hooks – and recut them into something exciting, edgy and tailor-made for a new generation of teenage party people. That it could be done more or less anytime, anywhere, gave it a rebel status that flew in the face of disco’s orderly 4/4 beats and exclusive venues.
Simply by wiring two turntables into a streetlamp, a DJ was ready to start wrecking records and turn a playground or basketball court into a dance floor. To put rap on top of it further exercised an inner city ownership as it continued black America’s oral tradition and allowed a healthy dose of the ‘dozens’ to be stirred in (the dozens is a ghetto game where kids insult each other with escalating vigour; the loser is the one who gives in first). This was always going to make for a very different accent and jargon from the much smoother world of soul singing, and the very idea of it infuriated the mainstream for years. Rap was the most obvious musical expression, and late-1970s/early 1980s records like The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Kurtis Blow’s ‘Christmas Rapping’ introduced the style to a wider audience, where it remains essentially unchanged right up to today’s Jay-Z and 50 Cent.
Graffiti art was a natural visual counterpart to the music. It began life as kids scrawling their customized signatures everywhere, thus rudely announcing their presence in environments beyond their own. Their art had the same DIY feel as what the DJs were doing with the turntables; just as they could make something rather marvellous out of the blandest of records, so graffiti blossomed into mural painting that turned some of New York’s worst eyesores into art gallery-style beauty. Break-dancing, too – the physical expression of the music – was something that anybody who owned a couple of square yards of cardboard could do. It also brought a unique style of self-expression that remained part of the hip hop community for a long time because first, break-dancing was difficult to master, and second, new moves were developed and unleashed continuously, so that it was always shifting beyond any notions of corporateness.
In the same way that jazz and blues were conjured up out of imagination, innovation and sheer raw talent, so hip hop was another example of the spirit of...
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